The First WESS European Conference: April 4-8, 1988, in Florence, Italy

ESS Newsletter

2022, Vol 2

by Dick Hacken

I attended an international conference in Florence, Italy, jointly sponsored by the Western European Specialists Section of ACRL, the European University Institute, and various Italian publishers and book agents, but mainly Mario Casalini. The conference was entitled “Shared Resources, Shared Responsibilities: Libraries and Western European Studies in North America and Western Europe.” Sessions were held in English, French and Italian, with English being the predominant language.

The keynote speaker of the opening session, a correspondent for Publishers Weekly living in Paris, praised the holdings of France’s Bibliotheque Nationale and various regional libraries in France, at the same time criticizing their lack of service orientation. He gave some hints on how to improve one’s odds of getting favorable results from the low level bureaucrats who generally hamper the researcher’s access to the materials. A panel discussion the next day on “European National Libraries in Transition” included the director of the Bibliotheque Nationale, who answered some of the criticism but also admitted to the validity of some of it. In defense of his own library’s limitations, he remarked that the financial problems of libraries in the USA are those of a “decaying bourgeoisie,” while the financial problems in France are those of a “decaying proletariat” (delivered only half tongue-in­-cheek). Representatives of the Belgian national library, the British Library, and the two Italian national libraries also spoke of their problems and progress.

A session on “Publishing in Western Europe” included reports from Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain and Portugal. Some of the topics, besides updates on turnover, profits, and export trends, were the copyright balance between publishers’ “fair profit” and librarians’ “fair use,” and the progress of electronic publishing in Europe, where the latest idea is not to speak of the book’s “obsolescence,” but of its “market share.” There were further sessions on “State of the Book Trade in various European countries,” and on the collecting of personal narratives in 20th Century European history.

The growth of the “Conspectus as a Collection Management Tool ” cited the RLG and ARL projects as outlined by Jutta Reed-Scott of ARL and their adaptation for use in Scotland, in university libraries of France, and their acceptance in other European countries as reported by three Europeans. In America, the conspectus now records 1/3 of North American research libraries, mainly RLG institutions, and we know of 42 level 5 collections that have been identified within the bounds of Western European Studies. 19 of the 50 PCR’s within European Studies are held by the Library of Congress. In Scotland, all 8 university libraries and three other research institutions have developed the Conspectus on the American model since 1985. In France, where all universities are centralized under one national education board, unlike the US, the conspectus was adapted to local needs. Especially the subject descriptors in America are useless to the French. Thus, they also took a look at the Quebec experiment in conspectus construction at the University of Laval, so the French are just now getting into conspecting. This does mean, though, that the conspectus (being encouraged by !FLA as well) may become an international tool, not just an RLG-wide one, and that we may need to “reconspect” at some point to meet an international norm. On the other hand, many other voices were raised questioning the practical advantages of conspectus-making on a local basis, let alone an international one.

At the same time in another room, six speakers were talking about the role of Documentation Centers in European industry, research, and the university.

A reception was held in the Palazzo Vecchio on the second evening, with greetings from the Mayor of Florence, a Medici ceiling, and a statue by Michelangelo (wow, what a welcome!). The third day had two sessions on databases and online communications, both geographically in Europe and about European subjects in the U.S. One discussion was about the economic reasons for the relative slowness of electronic publishing’s growth. The French Studies database ARTFL (American Research in the Treasury of the French Language) was introduced as the online French equivalent of the OED, a lexicon of 1500 French texts indexing all words in all texts. Its advantages were weighed against its expense and idiosyncrasies. Other academic databases were introduced, one of lyric poetry and music of the Italian Renaissance, another a commentary on Dante.

There were further sessions on social movements, fine arts, European preservation policies, microform collections and European government documents the same day. That night, I sat at dinner for four hours next to Rowland Brown, President of OCLC, who told me and others about OCLC experiments to include title pages and tables of contents as additional screens in their database.

Probably the most “charged” atmosphere was during the fourth day at the session called, “What Price Library Materials.” The three representatives were: a librarian, a publisher, and a book agent. The librarian spoke of book price indexing as a means toward cost projections. But even price indexing can’t predict the full picture. There has been, for example, a 40% drop in German Studies purchasing power over the past year in America, more from a weaker dollar than from inflation. Inflation has been very strong among journals, but not so much among monographs.

  The most entertaining portion of the session, “What Price Library Materials?” was the delivery of the stand-up comedy entitled: “Factors in Setting Prices of Journals” by a representative of Elsevier Science Publishers. Jan Willem Dykstra, General Manager for Marketing Services at Elsevier, listed a series of reasons that journals cost as much as they do (up to and beyond $20,000 a year in the case of one Elsevier medical journal). The reasons he delivered with a straight face are as follows: 1,000,000 articles a year appear in 40,000 journals; information is doubling fast; submissions are up, and so quality control and editorial discretion are extremely important. There is now a 50-80% rejection rate, but all manuscripts have to be evaluated. The complicated editorial process is a labor intensive procedure. Increase in size of the journal also leads to increase in price. Research and development costs have increased greatly for journal publishers. New technology is taking away customers, thus the price of existing subscriptions must be raised. Journal subscribers are not just paying for information, but for a carefully selected nucleus of structured and relevant information. Copying practices have also led to loss of subscription sales. 25 free reprints go to the author, and there is a discount to subscription agents, all of which has to reduce the profits. Finally, promotion and marketing costs to guarantee worldwide distribution must be met. In all fairness to Elsevier, they had the courage to show up and discuss the issue, and I understand other journal publishers are worse at pricing policies. A letter from Elsevier on this very topic and with some of the same arguments has been distributed to department chairmen and may be worth our further discussion.

After Mr. Dykstra’s talk, there were heated words. One librarian pointed out that “there is an end to what you can charge for a journal,” and that librarians have had it up to here with being gouged. Another pointed to a report in the Wall Street Journal that showed the number of Elsevier subscribers down and the profits up 32% over the past 6 months. Dykstra claimed that customer satisfaction comes first, but that the shareholders have to be pleased also. One librarian said she was “tired of being an unpaid agent for serials publishers by asking the regents or trustees for more and more funds each year,” and another said simply: “We don’t need your product.”

The third speaker was Knut Dorn of Harrassowitz, who gave other–less laudable and more cynical–reasons for higher journal prices: the European publishers got on the bandwagon of a physical presence in the US and of NY imprints, with new offices, new staff, and new sales forces for the same product they had produced for decades on the continent. Publishers also tried to skip over the agents’ heads and go directly to libraries. They introduced 2 and 3-tier discriminatory pricing systems that struck hardest at U.S. institutions, all this under the well-known principle of going for the deep pocket. In essence, Dorn said, publishers have dictated the terms for the past little while, and agents and libraries have just followed along.

Elsevier recently invented a cap for discounting that may require agents to raise their fees. The publishers take full advantage of their international mobility when it comes to sales, but not for distribution. They have also tended to set pricing strategies according to the strongest currency available. To quote Dorn: “Profits take precedence for publishers over the irritation they cause and the loss of their reputation.” So there is a limit to how far book dealers, as well as libraries, can be pushed.

An upcoming date discussed in hushed tones both inside and outside the convention walls was 1992, when all tariff boundaries, protectionism, and discounts between members of the European Common Market will be discarded. In economic terms at least, and not just for the book trade, there will be in essence a United States of Europe. A Danish dealer should be able to deliver a Spanish book at the same price as Puvill Libros from Madrid. There will probably be jockeying for position in the next four years, as smaller book agents from the Netherlands, say, cozy up to larger ones from Germany, just for example, trying to set up land-of-origin agreements and other reciprocal deals. According to one Dutch dealer I had dinner with, there is no one book agency large enough; even including Harrassowitz, that could become a renegade, taking all orders from all countries of Europe over the dead bodies of the defunct smaller dealers. But time will tell.

The same day, there were sessions on local history and regional publishing, on emigré literature, and on Women’s Studies in Western Europe. As part of the program, I toured the Marucellian and Laurentian Libraries, the former the regional depository for Tuscany and Florence, the latter designed by Michelangelo to contain works first collected by Lorenzo de Medici. I toured the National Central Library also, and heard how the library suffered from the 1966 flood of the Arno River, saw their conservation facilities and finagled a booklet on local Florentine restoration techniques that I passed along to (BYU preservationists) R. Silverman and R. Espinosa.

The final session summed up the tasks ahead for American and European cooperation in sharing resources and responsibilities. It was suggested that libraries distinguish needs from wants, have something unique to contribute, and search for points of cooperation.

Some of the most valuable contacts were made between sessions and after sessions, discussing practices and problems with newfound acquaintances from Oxford, Brussels, Amsterdam, Uppsala, Dublin, Malta, Washington, Wichita and of course, Florence. Other than Knut Dorn, there was a noticeable absence of German, Swiss and Austrian colleagues.